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June 13th, 2013

Government Surveillance of Citizens Raises Civil Liberty Concerns


Two revelations about government programs designed to sift through the public’s phone calls and social media interaction have raised questions about what the government should be allowed to do in the name of public safety.

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Last week the Guardian newspaper reported that the National Security Administration (NSA) has been secretly tracking the phone records of millions of Americans using data supplied by Verizon.

The administration defended the surveillance program, saying that it is lawful and is a “critical tool” to protect national security.

But civil liberties advocates say the program goes too far.

“I was astounded, first of all, to learn for the first time that the government thinks the law allows this, and even more astounded to learn that they were doing it,” Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies said on the NewsHour.

The person who leaked the information on the surveillance programs revealed himself as Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, who had once been assigned to work with the NSA. He says he felt compelled to speak out about what he calls wrongdoing.

“The more you talk about it, the more you are ignored, the more you’re told it’s not a problem,” he said in a video statement to The Guardian newspaper. “Until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”

Government sifts through Facebook and Google

Meanwhile, the Washington Post revealed that the NSA and FBI have two other spying programs that target American citizens, including one that uses the data of Facebook, Google and Apple, and one that uses information from major credit card companies.

Audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs “enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time,” the article explains. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” an unnamed career intelligence officer told the Post.

The classified PRISM program was established in 2007 and become “the most prolific contributor to the President’s Daily Brief,” according to the report.

Tech companies have since defended their actions. In an interview with the NewsHour, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond said,”the misimpression is that we’re doing some kind of large-scale — or participating in a program that does large-scale surveillance on our users. And that’s just not the case.”

Instead, he says, “only a tiny, very tiny fraction of [Google] users have ever been subject to one of these requests, national security requests.”

Executives at Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo have all asked the government to lower secrecy around the programs so that they can better explain their role in PRISM.

Spying legal under FISA, says administration

In order to spy on a phone line, the NSA, along with the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies, must file a warrant with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews the lawfulness of the program. Then, according to Pete Williams of NBC News, the NSA, “goes to the phone companies and says: Every day, pump your data about phone calls into our big government tank — only phone numbers (not names), along with other data about the calls, such as where they came from, how long they lasted, what numbers were dialed, and so on.”

The judge who approved this warrant said it was legal because it tracked only the data around the calls, not necessarily the calls themselves. The administration backed this position, saying that the order, “does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls.”

The country’s most secretive court

The courts were set up by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was signed into law in 1978 in the wake of the Watergate scandal as a way to protect American citizens from government spying.

FISA operated mostly without controversy until September 11, 2001, when the Patriot Act expanded the number of judges on the court from seven to 11, and loosened the legal guidelines on who could be monitored.

When it was first reported in 2006 that the Bush administration was wiretapping e-mails and phone calls worldwide in the hunt for terror suspects, then-Senator Barack Obama said it was a — quote — “slippery slope.”
House Speaker Republican John Boehner said it’s now up to President Obama to explain how critical the program is.

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